A Year In Viriconium
Updated: Jul 31
Sod it, I’m going to try writing about a book. Warning: Spoilers and ill-formed thoughts abound.
The latest lockdown reading has been Viriconium, by M. John Harrison. Covering several novels and short stories written over about a decade, the various texts describe events in the history of an imagined city - Viriconium. The tone of the books varies from sword-and-sorcery adventure (The Pastel City) to fever dream reality-twisting (A Storm of Wings) to the final novel, In Viriconium, which reads like a masterpiece of fin-de-siecle writing, somewhere between Rilke’s daydreams, the melancholy of Baudelaire, and the garrets of La Boheme.
What all of them have in common is the city which, at every stage we see it, is in decline. The ruins of previous ages lie about it, and any attempt to save it only delays the inevitable slide into oblivion, or averts a worse oblivion than that already coming. The elite High City looms above the crowded Low City, besieged by the latter’s decay, always subject to the same decline as the rest.
Of all the books I’ve read in lockdown (not as many as I might like), In Viriconium is the first that I’ve truly read and thought “yes. This is a book about the moment I am living in.” (Obviously, no thing is perfect. But.)
In the novel, a plague grips Viriconium. It hasn’t affected the whole city yet; at the start of the book, it has just started to tread into the Artists’ Quarter. Ashlyme, a painter currently in fashion for showing the ugly side of his sitters’ personalities in a few strokes (the description makes me think of Schiele), is painting the legendary artist Audsley King. Her work is masterful, innovative, and - to her great contempt - highly collectible among the elite of the High City. Ashlyme has been asked to paint a portrait of her, and has to visit in secret to avoid the quarantine police - for indeed, Audsley shuns the plague-free High City and lives in the impoverished Artists’ Quarter.
Throughout the book, Audsley refuses to leave for the soulless High City, Ashlyme (and his friend, the telescope-maker and inventor Buffo) plot a desperate attempt to kidnap her for her own good (which fails disastrously), and the city is plagued by twin tricksters, the Barley Brothers (who have some hold over The Grand Cairo, paranoid and pompous head of the quarantine police). Audsley spends her time with Fat Mam Ettellia, a fortune-teller constantly examining her cards, though revealing little to Ashylme.
Various vines weave through the whole thing that make it sing so harmoniously with the current age.
First, the sense of decay that pervades the Viriconium novels. Like a yawning pit, it is always there - the sense that amid this rich and complex city, there is no likely return to glory, much though Ashlyme hopes to save Audsley and thus the city’s soul. Mam Ettellia’s fortunes are a mystery that is never explained to us, though perhaps they allow her some sort of escape from the final chaos of the city. Like the interweaving crises of climate change, rising xenophobia, COVID-19, and many more, it requires a great act of radical hope to believe in change, only possible though reckless (and far from certain) action. Those who can see the future are near-impossible to understand - or perhaps we don’t ask in the right way.
Second, the sense of cultural decay. For the elites of the High City, the plague is something to be treated as a topic of conversation, snapping between grim tutting to amused laughter at the latest antics of the monstrous Barley brothers, stealing someone’s pot plant or taunting some poor soul at night, and then proposing them as the topic for the latest show, replacing a long-anticipated The Dreaming Boys now considered too ‘serious,’ with overly risqué designs by Audsley King.
Now, the news jolts from the latest death figures to a bit of lighthearted ‘human interest’ featuring smiling children, cute animals, and resources that could have been spent better contextualising or explaining complex topics, or at least not actively disrupting concentration on an important topic after a handful of minutes. The citizens of the city do not truly focus on what is wrong with their city.
Though Viriconium’s elites superficially worry about their beloved Audsley King, the works they prize are the safe and tame works she despises most, with the least value. What they value is the desirability of such works; they threaten Ashlyme the portrait artist with falling out of fashion as a form of ultimate doom. In an age where fine art is a commodity to accrue value in a vault, not a thing for its own sake, this rings a hollow chord. None of them help Ashlyme in his rescue attempt, or make any effort of their own to save her, though his failure gives him a certain Byron-esque celebrity. The story is romantic; participation too far.
In reality, the entertainment they truly enjoy is the Barley Brothers’ grotesque antics, with only Ashlyme seeing their darker side undercutting the city’s best nature and art. With theatres closed, it’s mostly the weird fringes, the sub-communities, the truly unique and life-changing work that is lost, or not seen, and the trivial and entertaining survives in bite-sized, never-too-deep, chunks. The government’s ‘crown jewels’ of culture have been defined in a manner defensible only to the most conservative, uninformed, and unimaginative golf-club bore imaginable.
Netflix and Disney+ loom large over the artistic community, their algorithms and marketing determining what is a ‘great show’ that everyone (in a specific target audience) should see, playing to the lowest common denominator of each hyper-specific market. They deal in entertainment, not virtue or merit. They deal in ‘bingeable content for the superhero/period drama/elderly/queer target audience’, not ‘good show for humans trying to be human.’ There’s a place for the former, and ye gods they have the data to work out what food is most addictive. But there is… more.
I’m aware this can veer into the snobbish, and I’m trying to avoid that as someone whose own practice includes crass comedy and streams. But when the gatekeeper’s motivation is simply a computer asking ‘how much can we get you to watch,’ (not even ‘how much money can we make,’ given that most major streaming platforms are financed by investors hoping to, Uber-like, undercut the current market, acquire a near-monopoly, and then break what rules they like and charge a profit-making sum), then something is lost.
Art is for sentient creatures (mostly humans). You can make infinite content tailored to each taste that we’ll eat like crisps for distraction, with the occasional bit of actual food occasionally surfacing, but that’ll kill a human in the end. Audsley King’s designs for The Dreaming Boys have something that the Barley Brothers’ antics do not. In some ways, the greatest sting is not that they prefer the Barley Brothers - they have to live in the world that creates - but that they try to pretend that that preference is somehow virtuous, or aesthetically sound.
Finally, the manner of dying. As the inevitable end approaches, some respond by mourning, others through corruption, anarchy, and debauchery, others through violence and cruelty. But death by plague is meaningless. It strikes where it will.
Buffo dies alone, shunned by Ashlyme after the failed rescue attempt; when Ashlyme finally visits it is to find a corpse, notes on his research and the tragic line “no one has come to visit me in my illness”, and the quarantine police burning Buffo’s unrecognised but brilliant research on a new kind of telescope, refusing to stop. Audsley’s death is slow, anguished, and inevitable, and ultimately alone, her circle of admirers keeping well away from her as she reflects on her life, failing to make a place for art for its own sake, yet having nothing she would change about it.
And the city’s death too is inevitable. Eventually, Ashlyme manages to force one of the Barley Brothers to speak, demanding that they tell him whether the city could have been saved.
“The citizens are responsible for the state of the city. If you had only asked yourselves what was the matter with the city, all would have been well. Audsley King would have been healed. Art would have been made whole. The energy of the Low City wold have been released and the High City freed from the thrall of its mediocrity.”
It’s a wonderful book, and I’d recommend it to a great many people. But please: if you’re looking for something to adapt for your latest blockbuster binge, please don’t.